Editorial |

Israel's Far-right Uses Yeshivas as Campaign Tool

Haaretz Editorial
Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich.
Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich.Credit: Emil Salman
Haaretz Editorial

The hesder yeshivas, whose students combine religious study with military service, have always served as a hothouse for political education in the spirit of Haredi Zionism, especially the hesder yeshivas in the territories. Occasionally the debate returns over the inequitable hesder track (inequitable because its participants serve a shorter stint in the army), mainly when a rabbi from a hesder yeshiva makes a controversial statement.

Therefore, the fact that several hesder yeshivas hosted Knesset candidates from the Religious Zionism party this week is no surprise. Nor is the fact that the head of the Association of Hesder Yeshivas, Rabbi Haim Drukman – the dean of the Or Etzion hesder yeshiva – accompanied these visits and called on the students to aid in the election campaign of Bezalel Smotrich’s party.

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“We’ve become a tool of Smotrich’s political progaganda,” said a student at one yeshiva, who wondered, justifiably, “Would they let Merav Michaeli come speak here?,” referring to the chairwoman of the Labor Party.

But we aren’t just talking about listening passively to campaign speeches. It turns out that in some of the yeshivas students were recruited for actual political activity on behalf of Religious Zionism, making phone calls to potential voters and planning to volunteer for the party on Election Day (as reported Tuesday by Josh Breiner).

The fact that hesder yeshivas receive state funding and a large percentage of their students are considered service members – and are therefore subject to the military regulations prohibiting soldiers from engaging in political activity – didn’t stop these yeshivas from hosting Religious Zionism’s political campaign and its rabbis.

A few weeks ago, following a visit by Smotrich to the hesder yeshiva in Sderot, the Israel Defense Forces made in clear to the hesder yeshiva association that hesder yeshivas are forbidden to conduct political activity and that they are expected to comply with the rules that apply to soldiers during election season. But apparently that clarification carried no weight. What exactly would the army do to them?

The abbreviated hesder service track is the result of political deals, which continue under pressure from the right-wing parties. There is no logical reason why a regular soldier, who is drafted for full combat service, should see his peers from the hesder yeshivas serving only 18 months simply because the military establishment fears the response of Zionist rabbis. Nor is there any reason that these yeshivas are permitted to set their own curricula without supervision, limiting the role of the state to the allocation of funds.

Now, when it turns out that the hesder yeshivas are also acting as a platform for electioneering, the time has come to get rid of this crooked track. Until that happens, if it ever does, the IDF must find more effective ways to insist that its rules be followed, strictly forbid political involvement and take back its authority, which today is held by the rabbis.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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